Sexual Inequalities and Social Justice

By Lyons, Andrew P. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Sexual Inequalities and Social Justice


Lyons, Andrew P., Anthropologica


Niels Teunis and Gilbert Herdt, eds., Sexual Inequalities and Social Justice, Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007, 264 pages.

Reviewer: Andrew P. Lyons

Wilfrid Laurier University

This volume is the somewhat belated result of a session organized by Gilbert Herdt for the 2001 meetings of the American Anthropological Association. The contributors include sociologists, psychologists and gerontologists along with teachers in interdisciplinary fields such as human sexuality studies and ethnic studies. Only three of fifteen contributors are listed as anthropologists. However, some of the essays are ethnographically rich, particularly the contributions of Shuttieworth, Fields, Carrington and Soh.

In their introduction the editors argue that the academic study of sexual inequalities is somewhat belated compared with studies of other forms of social inequality such as class, race and ethnicity. The pioneers in this field were activists rather than academics, and included such exemplars as the leaders of the women's health movements of the 1970s. There is a rather tiresome gibe (p. 14) about the disembodied, romantic and incomprehensible writings of postmodernists and queer theorists in the 1980s and 1990s. Clearer, more partisan studies are preferred. Teunis and Herdt believe that the AIDS epidemic provided activist academics with the moral stimulus they needed to partake in the creation of scholarship about sexual inequalities. They note that practices of systemic structural violence are involved in the production of different kinds of inequality which often intersect to produce complex forms of oppression. Thus in this collection, Sonya Grant Arreola and Rafael Diaz describe gay Latinos in Los Angeles who are at one and the same time oppressed because they are gay members of a heterosexist culture, because they are poor, because some of them have histories as victims of sexual abuse and because they are immigrants in the U.S. Inasmuch as Teunis and Herdt feel that the engaged participant rather than the distanced observer is often better placed to understand both systemic oppression and the actors who resist it, positivist research models are rejected in favour of advocacy for positionality.

The problems posed by positionality are not interrogated by the editors but they are intelligently considered by some of the contributors. Jessica Fields who investigated sex education in North Carolina middle schools decided to mask her lesbian identity so that she could interact with conservative parents, teachers and homophobic students. Doubtless, her identity informed her cogent critique of educational practices. Russell Shuttieworth is not himself disabled, but lived near a disabled cousin when he was growing up and therefore understood the forms of discrimination the disabled face. When one of his disabled friends asked for his company on a visit to a strip club where the researcher would have to negotiate with a sex worker on "Josh's" behalf, Shuttleworth agreed despite his qualms. Christopher Carrington was/is a participant in the subculture of the gay dance "Circuit" (events that take place in many Western countries throughout the year), and draws on a quarter-century of experience to explain the hedonistic, liminal abandon of three-day parties which involve uninhibited dancing, muscular sexuality and consumption of a plethora of psychotropic drugs, while also raising substantial funds for gay charities. Carrington's functionalist conclusions would not be startling to most anthropologists, namely that the Circuit is a response to pervasive homophobia, prudery and the climate of fear caused by AIDS. However, they contradict the opinions of some AIDS activists and conservative gays such as Andrew Sullivan who view the Circuit as reprehensible, irresponsible and defying all logic. One could say that the partygoers on the circuit follow a cultural script which resists the "rationality" of health workers and many other gay activists. …

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